The Locked Down Monthly Review of April 2020

In 2002, Blue got the city on lockdown.
In 2020, Boris Johnson got the country on lockdown.
Your move, noughties boy bands.

One thing this stressful time has been good for is my film viewing. After a 2019 that saw some of my lowest months in years — indeed, ever — I’m pleased to say that April 2020 is a record breaker:

100 Films has a new Best. Month. Ever!


#59 Rang De Basanti (2006)
#60 The Kid (1921/1971)
#61 The Three Caballeros (1944)
#62 Stop Making Sense (1984)
#63 Burning (2018), aka Beoning
#64 The Karate Kid Part III (1989)
#65 Aniara (2018)
#66 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
#67 The Diamond Arm (1969), aka Brilliantovaya ruka
#68 I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
#68a The Devil’s Harmony (2019)
#69 The Next Karate Kid (1994)
#70 Never Too Young to Die (1986)
#71 It Chapter Two (2019)
#72 Andrei Rublev (1966)
#73 Dune: The Alternative Edition Redux (1984/2012)
#74 Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
#75 K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
#76 Near Dark (1987)
#77 The Thin Red Line (1998)
#78 Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
#79 Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
#80 6 Underground (2019)
#81 The Secret Life of Pets 2 3D (2019)
#82 Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman (2006)
#83 Long Day’s Journey into Night 3D (2018), aka Di Qiu Zui Hou De Ye Wan
#84 End of the Century (2019), aka Fin de siglo
#85 Men in Black: International (2019)
#86 The Sheik (1921)
#87 The Son of the Sheik (1926)
#88 Extraction (2020)
#89 The Wedding Guest (2018)
#89a The Escape (2016)
#90 Ready or Not (2019)
#91 Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
#92 The Two Popes (2019)
#93 Ice Age: Continental Drift 3D (2012)
#94 The Lunchbox (2013)
#95 Zatoichi in Desperation (1972), aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Oreta tsue
#96 Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
Aniara

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Dune: The Alternative Edition Redux

Jumanji: The Next Level

Ready or Not

The Lunchbox

.


  • I watched 38 new feature films in April.
  • As I said at the start, that’s my most ever in a single month, beating the previous record holder (May 2018) by four films. That’s noteworthy because May 2018 is only one film ahead of the month that’s now in 3rd, which is only two films ahead of the month now in 4th, which is only three films ahead of the months now in =5th. So, four is a pretty healthy margin.
  • Obviously, as my best month ever, April is going to smash any comparisons I care to make. So let’s start with the only thing it wasn’t guaranteed to do, but it has done nonetheless: #96 is the furthest I’ve reached by the end of April (next best is #90 in 2018).
  • Averages: it increases April’s average by two whole films, from 12.8 to 14.8; increases the rolling average of the last 12 months from 13.3 to 14.8; and increases the average for 2020 to date from 19.3 to 24.0. If I maintained that average until December, 2020 would become my biggest year ever (but things never work out like that).
  • It’s my 21st month with 20+ films, and my 4th month with 30+ films.

Alright, now some notes on the films within those 38…

  • Back in February, I noted that I’d somehow never seen a film from 1932. That’s now changed, thanks to I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Now, since the year of the first feature films being produced in the UK and USA (1912), there are only four years from which I’ve not seen at least one feature-length film: 1912, 1914, 1915, and 1923. I have at least one title picked out from each of those years that I could use to settle this matter, so I ought to get on with them…
  • I’ve seen David Lynch’s Dune before, but it was over 20 years ago and it was the theatrical cut. The fan edit I watched adds material from a longer TV cut and deleted scenes, plus generally rearranges and rejigs stuff, so I figure it must be substantially different enough to count as new.
  • Having watched 92% of the alphabet in January, February, and March, only X and Z remained — with the latter now claimed by Zatoichi in Desperation. X will go whenever I get round to watching Dark Phoenix — I think that’s literally the only X film I have in my collection or on Netflix/Amazon/etc.
  • This month’s Blindspot films: Andrei Tarkovsky’s biopic of 15th century religious icon painter Andrei Rublev. I found it as dry as that sounds. Also, from my ‘overflow’ list, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, which I was also underwhelmed by. I knew it would be more Malickian than your typical war movie, but still, something about it didn’t connect with me.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Aniara, End of the Century, It Chapter Two, Rambo: Last Blood, Ready or Not, and The Secret Life of Pets 2, plus The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (see Rewatchathon). That’s a record haul, besting the five failures I watched last April. It was driven by most of those being time-limited Amazon rentals.



The 59th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
How to define “favourite”? On the one hand you’ve got something like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which is a weighty and still-pertinent condemnation of the American justice system. On the other, something such as Jumanji: The Next Level, which is just a whole lot of fun. More tickling my fancy in the former camp is Aniara, about the psychological strain of being stranded in space with little hope of ever returning home, some of which feels very pertinent to our current world situation (I know we’re all at home rather than far from it, but the cooped up with no hope of escape… yeah). And in the latter camp, Ready or Not is a deliciously gonzo horror-comedy, which didn’t quite push as many buttons as I’d hoped but is still massively entertaining. On balance, bearing in mind its unexpected timeliness, Aniara takes it.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
This is a more straightforward category… although, personally, I included Andrei Rublev on my shortlist, which is a Highly Acclaimed Movie (just check out how many Greatest Ever lists it’s on), but it bored me senseless. Still, it did have some parts I admired — I’m not sure I can say the same about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Actually, that’s not strictly true: Christopher Reeve was always perfect as Superman; but the film definitely lets him down.

Best Musical Discovery of the Month
I’d never consciously listened to Talking Heads before I watched Stop Making Sense. I recognised exactly two of the songs during that concert movie, and one of those I know best from a cover version. While I wouldn’t exactly call myself a convert to their music, I liked most of it well enough, with opening number Psycho Killer my favourite. In fact, I preferred the live version in the film to the original recording. Maybe it’s just because I heard that take first, I dunno.

Best Audition to Be James Bond of the Month
It never even crossed my mind that the skinny kid from Slumdog Millionaire could ever be considered for Bond, and I bet it didn’t yours either. It was David Ehrlich’s Letterboxd review of The Wedding Guest that first flagged up the idea for me, and, having seen the film, I can see what he means. Dev Patel as James Bond… it’d certainly be different.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
The second half of last month’s TV review sat pretty atop the chart for most of the month (the Doctor Who half, meanwhile, wasn’t even close), but then Extraction came barrelling through my stats like Tyler Rake through an overcrowded Indian apartment block. Five older TV posts topped it overall, but it was by far my most-viewed new post.



The name’s Connery, Sean Connery.

Yes, there’s a distinct theme to this month’s rewatches. It wasn’t deliberate… well, not at first. Once I noticed it, obviously I had to maintain it.

#15 Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
#16 The Avengers (1998)
#17 The Rock (1996)
#18 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

…and, if you want to take it further, you could argue they’re all movies where Connery returned to the role of James Bond. Sure, Diamonds Are Forever is the only one where that’s literally true, but there’s long been a fan theory that Connery’s character in The Rock is Bond under a pseudonym, and in The Avengers he plays an innuendo-spewing former British secret agent turned villain. As for LXG… yeah, okay, the idea runs out there.

When I included The Rock in my 100 Favourites, I only rated it 4 stars. Now I feel like a fool — it’s easily a 5. Some thoughts as to why on Letterboxd. Mind you, that kind of thing cuts both ways: when I finally got round to rewatching Face/Off 18 months ago, I discovered I didn’t enjoy it as much as I used to, and if I’d done that before publishing 100 Favourites then I might’ve dropped it from the list entirely. I intend to update my favourites list someday, but I think I need to do a good deal more rewatching before then.

My rewatch of LXG was prompted by this defence of the film. While I wouldn’t call the movie a masterpiece, I do generally agree with that article — the film has its moments (many of them thanks to Dorian Gray), and it’s certainly no worse than many other ’90s/’00s Hollywood blockbusters. Quite why it provokes such vitriol from anyone but fans of the book is beyond me. (Book fans have every right to be disappointed, because the film sanitises and Hollywoodises the concept. That said, as a fan of the books myself, I’m happy to take both forms as differing executions of the same idea.)


This may be the biggest month in 100 Films history, but there was still plenty of stuff I failed to watch. Nothing in cinemas, obviously (though Trolls World Tour did get released direct to premium streaming, and consequently looks like it might change the world), but the other avenues for film viewing offered more than enough alternatives.

For starters, Netflix completed their Studio Ghibli lineup with Howl’s Moving Castle (the only one I’d seen), From Up on Poppy Hill (which I own on Blu-ray), Ponyo (also on Blu-ray), When Marnie Was There (also on Blu-ray, jeez!), Pom Poko, Whisper of the Heart, and The Wind Rises. On the new films front there was CG animation The Willoughbys, which looks vaguely interesting, and for (relatively) recent releases they mustered the remake of Child’s Play. They also added the second Maze Runner film, The Scorch Trials. One day the whole trilogy will be available somewhere and I’ll give them a shot.

Amazon actually had more to offer in terms of recent acquisitions, though the quality level is dubious — I’m talking of films like Angel Has Fallen (the second sequel to the less-good “Die Hard in the White House” movie), Playmobil: The Movie (a rip-off of The LEGO Movie that wasn’t as well received), 21 Bridges (which received middling notices), and The Current War (presumably in its director’s cut form, for which the most positive comment Rotten Tomatoes can muster is “a significant improvement over previous versions”). Additions from the archive include a handful of Hong Kong actioners, led by the appropriately-titled Police Story: Lockdown (the sixth film, and second reboot, in the Jackie Chan action franchise), plus unofficial prequel The Legend is Born: Ip Man (I believe Ip Man 4 is also now available to rent over here), and Donnie Yen in Legend of the Fist (a version of the story from Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury and Jet Li’s Fist of Legend).

Also new to Amazon was medical disaster movie Outbreak, which was already on Netflix; and they both added Contagion, after everyone was talking about it last month. I noticed it still made it into Netflix’s UK top ten, though.

Over on Now TV, sequel-cum-reimagining Four Kids and It caught my eye because I remember enjoying the BBC’s 1991 adaptation of the original book when I was a kid, but this new one didn’t seem to go down terribly well (though the British critics collated by Rotten Tomatoes have got it to 61%, which counts as ‘fresh’). Other recent films now on Sky include Ma and Tolkien.

Finally, I went a bit potty in Blu-ray sales again, this time mostly at Arrow, picking up a couple of Vincent Price horrors, Tales of Terror and Tower of London; a couple of artier titles from Second Run, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Ikarie XB 1; Third Window’s double-bill of The Whispering Star and The Sion Sono; and some Westerns and noirs and noir-Westerns that include The Ox-Bow Incident, My Name is Julia Ross, and Terror in a Texas Town. The latter pair were directed by Joseph H. Lewis, whose So Dark the Night I enjoyed last month, so I also bought his Gun Crazy in its HMV-exclusive edition, paired with their edition of Out of the Past in their 2-for-£25 offer. Meanwhile, Eureka tempted me with new releases, namely Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and Masters of Cinema titles Rio Grande, Kwaidan, and their second box set of Buster Keaton features, which includes The Navigator, Seven Chances, and Battling Butler. International travel may be closed to humans, but it isn’t to Blu-rays, as evidenced by my imports of 3-D Rarities Volume II (which includes Mexico’s only 3D film, swashbuckler El Corazón y la Espada) and A Boy and His Dog (which I look forward to rewatching in good quality, unlike the print I saw on Prime Video a few years ago). I tried to resist the UHD upgrade of The Elephant Man, but then I saw the PQ comparisons and the limited-edition pop-up packaging (damn my love of a cardboard gimmick!) and caved.

And, inevitably, I did purchase The Rise of Skywalker, in 3D. You know, I’ve never got round to rewatching The Last Jedi. The idea of pairing them up as a double bill should be the most natural thing in the world, but instead it feels like a bold experiment in combining chalk and cheese. Still, I might try it sometime.


Barring any unforeseen circumstances (though, at the minute, who can accurately foresee anything?), I should definitely pass #100 early next month. As for my new-goal-I-keep-half-forgetting of #120, well, that’s within reach too. And then…

In my final monthly review of 2019, I mentioned that “it’s entirely possible [2020 will] be the year I reach #2000”. Now, it’s all but certain that it will (unforeseen circumstances, remember). If May gets to 35 films (which, before this month, would’ve been a record for biggest month ever), that’ll be 100 Films’ #2000! Is it likely I’ll achieve two such huge months in a row? Funnily enough, the last couple of times I’ve set a new “best month ever” it’s been immediately beaten by the very next month: September then October in 2015; April then May in 2018.

No pressure, May 2020…

The Avengers (1998)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Avengers

Saving the World in Style.

Also Known As:
Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir (France — Bowler Hat and Leather Boots)
Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone (Germany — With Umbrella, Charm and Bowler Hat)

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 89 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 13th August 1998 (Israel)
UK Release: 14th August 1998
Budget: $60 million
Worldwide Gross: $48.6 million

Stars
Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, Harry Potter)
Uma Thurman (Batman & Robin, Kill Bill: Vol. 1)
Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)

Director
Jeremiah Chechik (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Benny & Joon)

Screenwriter
Don MacPherson (Absolute Beginners, The Gunman)

Based on
The Avengers, a ’60s British TV series created by Sydney Newman.


The Story
After the UK’s weather control project is destroyed, apparently by one of its own scientists, Ministry agent John Steed is assigned to investigate. Teaming up with that scientist, Mrs Emma Peel, they uncover a plot to hold the world’s governments to ransom…

Our Heroes
Extraordinary crimes against the people and the state must be avenged by agents extraordinary: John Steed: traditional, stylish, reserved, lethal. Emma Peel: doctor, atomic scientist, poet, meteorologist, physicist, marksman.

Our Villain
A former agent of the Ministry, Sir August de Wynter is now head of BROLLY, the British Royal Organization for Lasting Liquid Years, who have developed the technology to control the weather and now seek to put it to nefarious ends.

Best Supporting Character
Machine-gun firing granny Alice. Eileen Atkins was offered the role of the Ministry’s deputy leader, Father, but thought the part of Alice sounded more fun, so they re-wrote to enlarge it for her.

Memorable Quote
“Now is the winter of your discontent!” — Sir August de Wynter

Memorable Scene
Instructed to meet Steed at his gentleman’s club, Mrs Peel waltzes into the place, despite the objections of the receptionist. She marches through the building, shocking the patrons, until she finds Steed in the steam room — naked but for the newspaper he’s reading. “Please, don’t get up.” “I was about to throw in the towel.”

Memorable Music
Michael Kamen was originally hired to score the film, but eventually quit after being constantly given revised cuts of the movie to work with. His replacement, Joel McNeely, had to turn something round in short notice, and I’ve seen his score described as clearly rushed, dull and uninspired. But at least the TV series’ classic theme is in there, and fairly well used — once right at the start (although there’s an ever-so-’90s X-Files-y number over the main credits), and then again perfectly as a farewell over the final scene. Rumour has it Kamen’s score was darker and more atmospheric, with a greater and more interesting use of the original theme. Given the general disregard for the movie, I don’t imagine it’ll ever be unearthed for us to find out for ourselves.

Letting the Side Down
The teddy-bear meeting, where the participants are kept anonymous by wearing giant teddy-bear costumes. It’s an attempt at emulating the whimsy of the TV series, but an empty one — as the series’ regular writer Brian Clemens once commented, if the plot’s about controlling the weather then the meeting should’ve been weather-themed somehow.

Some people would say there’s a lot more wrong with the film than just that one scene, but there’s more to it than that…

Making of
When Warner Bros execs saw the first cut of the movie, it was not what they were expecting. I don’t know what they were expecting, but I guess not something so tongue-in-cheek, whimsical, and camp. Apparently the first test screening in Phoenix, Arizona, was to a “largely Spanish-speaking, working class” audience — hardly the film’s target market, and unsurprisingly they hated it. The studio forced cuts and reshoots, taking the movie from 115 minutes to a sprightly 89, sacrificing plot coherence for the sake of speed. And so a true disaster was born.

Previously on…
This is a reboot rather than continuation of the original TV series — it shows how Steed and Mrs Peel met for the first time. I don’t know if the TV series actually covered that (I really should watch it all one of these days), but I don’t imagine it went like this.

Next time…
The Avengers ultimately became a massively successful multi-film franchise under the auspices of Marvel Studios. Oh, no, wait, that’s some other thing. No, after suffering atrocious reviews (it’s sometimes cited as one of the worst movies of all time), the ’98 Avengers slinked off into relative obscurity (it’s probably better remembered here than in the US thanks to the TV series connection, but Marvel’s super-friends are gradually replacing it in the consciousness, sadly). Still, the world of the TV series lives on in occasional comic books and audio dramas.

Awards
1 Razzie (Worst Remake or Sequel (tied with Godzilla and Psycho))
8 Razzie nominations (Worst Picture, Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Actress (Uma Thurman), Screen Couple (Fiennes & Thurman), Supporting Actor (Sean Connery), Director, Screenplay, Original Song (Storm by Grace Jones))

Verdict

I was one of the half-dozen people who actually saw The Avengers at the cinema in 1998. I don’t remember disliking it, but then I was all of 12 so what would I have known? Its poor reputation has only grown in the intervening decades, so I wasn’t expecting to think much of it as a more critically sophisticated adult. But, much to my surprise, I kind of loved it.

I guess in ’98 people were expecting some kind of serious-minded thriller, probably in the Bond mould — this was just after GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies had relaunched that series to much acclaim and box office success, of course, and The Avengers was another hallmark of ’60s British spy-fi. But The Avengers and Bond were never the same tonally, and the film embraces the mannered, quirky tone of the TV series, then turns it up to eleven. Personally I think it’s a tonne of fun, with arch performances, ripe dialogue, and a deliciously camp air.

If it wasn’t for WB’s post-production fiddling, which has left the plot feeling a bit janky and spasmodic, I reckon this would be a cult classic by now. They really ought to have a bad reputation for that kind of fiddling at this point — Batman Forever, Suicide Squad, and Justice League come to mind. But never mind the Snyder cut, I want them to #ReleaseTheChechikCut. Sadly, it’ll never happen.

Sean Connery as James Bond, Part 2

If everything had gone according to plan, this weekend Americans would’ve been flocking to cinemas to see Daniel Craig’s final performance as Bond, James Bond, secret agent 007, in No Time to Die (us Brits would’ve all been to see it last weekend, of course). As that’s not to be, here’s something both entirely similar and entirely different: my reviews of Sean Connery’s final performance in the role — both of them.

This concludes my coverage of Connery’s time as Bond, the previous instalment of which I posted in, er, 2013. (And you thought No Time to Die had a long delay.) That covered his first stint as James Bond — the five films he starred in from 1962 to 1967. Now, here are his two remaining performances:

Neither of these films is Connery’s finest hour as Bond — they’re his worst hours, in fact — but, I must say, they were both better than I had remembered.

Click through to learn more about…

That may be it for Connery, but — as always — James Bond will return… in Daniel Craig’s case, in November (fingers crossed!)

Never Say Never Again (1983)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Never Say Never Again

Sean Connery is James Bond 007

Country: UK, USA & West Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 134 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 7th October 1983 (USA)
UK Release: 15th December 1983
Budget: $36 million
Worldwide Gross: $138 million

Stars
Sean Connery (Thunderball, Highlander)
Klaus Maria Brandauer (Mephisto, Out of Africa)
Kim Basinger (Mother Lode, Batman)
Barbara Carrera (The Island of Dr. Moreau, Lone Wolf McQuade)
Max von Sydow (The Exorcist, Minority Report)

Director
Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back, RoboCop 2)

Screenwriter
Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Papillon, Flash Gordon)

Based on
An original James Bond story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and Ian Fleming, which Fleming later novelised as Thunderball.


The Story
Ageing secret agent James Bond is sent to a health spa to get back into shape, but therein stumbles upon part a plot to hijack nuclear warheads and hold the world to ransom. With the theft successful, it falls to Bond to retrieve the weapons before it’s too late.

Our Hero
Bond, James Bond, British secret agent 007. He’s played by Sean Connery — already the first and third actor to play James Bond on the big screen (in a serious movie), here he becomes the fifth too. Unlike the official Bond films, which carried on regardless as Roger Moore began to look more like an OAP than a capable secret agent, Never Say Never Again acknowledges that Bond is getting on a bit. That’s because Connery was 53 at the time, and this is from back in the days when 53 was old, especially for an action star — not like today.

Our Villains
Billionaire businessman Maximilian Largo is actually the highest-ranking agent of SPECTRE, a global criminal organisation masterminded by Ernst Stavro Blofeld. With Blofeld merely pulling the strings behind the scenes, it’s Largo and his lackeys that Bond must defeat to save the world.

Best Supporting Character
Rowan Atkinson’s cameo-sized role as inexperienced local bureaucrat Nigel Small-Fawcett is actually quite amusing, and therefore probably the best thing about the film.

Memorable Quote
Largo: “Do you lose as gracefully as you win?”
Bond: “I don’t know, I’ve never lost.”

Memorable Scene
At a charity event hosted by Largo, Bond comes face-to-face with his adversary for the first time, where he’s challenged to play Domination, a 3D computer game. It couldn’t be more ’80s if it tried.

Memorable Music
James Bond films have a very distinct musical style… but not when they’re unofficial productions they don’t. Without access to familiar themes, Never Say Never Again finds itself having to reach for something different… and fails: the title song is bland and the jazzy score is forgettable.

Letting the Side Down
Where to begin? Well, let’s pick on perhaps my least favourite bit of the whole endeavour: henchwoman Fatima Blush; and, more specifically, how the film ends up handling her. First, there’s a truly terrible sex scene between her and Bond, but it only gets worse later: the self-espoused feminist becomes monomaniacally concerned that Bond should think she’s the greatest shag he ever had, which distracts her to the point that he gets the opportunity to kill her… which he does with an explosive bullet that just leaves her smoking high heels behind. No, seriously. And for this performance Barbara Carrera received a Golden Globe nomination! If you told me she’d been nominated for an award and asked me to guess which, I’d’ve been certain it was a Razzie.

Making of
“So how did an unofficial James Bond film come about anyway?,” I hear you ask. Well, the story starts in the early ’60s, after the Bond novels had become popular but before the film series began. Creator Ian Fleming worked with independent producer Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham on a script for a potential Bond film titled Longitude 78 West, but this was abandoned due to costs. Fleming then adapted the screenplay into a Bond novel, Thunderball, but without credit for either McClory or Whittingham. McClory sued for breach of copyright, and the matter was settled by Fleming giving McClory all rights to the screenplay. By this time the official Bond film series was underway, and Eon Productions made a deal for McClory to coproduce their adaptation of Thunderball, an agreement which forbade him from making any further films of the novel for another decade. That lands us in the mid-’70s, when Bond was still very popular. As McClory began attempting to get a new adaptation off the ground, Eon put legal obstacles in his path, accusing his new script of breaking copyright restrictions by going beyond the confines of Thunderball. Eventually McClory and other producers managed to clear these hurdles and, after rewrites to make Connery happy (which were undertaken by British TV writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who went uncredited due to Writers Guild of America restrictions, despite much of the final script being their work), the remake finally went before the cameras — with a new title, suggested by Connery’s wife, referring to his vow that he would “never” play Bond again.

Previously on…
James Bond had starred in 13 official movies by the time this came along. It’s kind of ironic that Never Say Never Again’s unofficial status means it can’t acknowledge any of that, while also tacitly acknowledging it with Connery’s very presence in the lead role. Though if it had been able to acknowledge it, the fact this film is a straight-up remake of Thunderball might’ve led to some awkwardness.

Next time…
Early in 1984, producer Kevin McClory announced a sequel, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. It never happened. He spent most of the rest of his life trying to pursue further James Bond projects: he tried to remake the same story again in 1989 as Atomic Warfare starring Pierce Brosnan, and again in the early ’90s as Warhead 2000 AD starring Timothy Dalton. In 1997 he sold the rights to Sony, who already held the rights to Casino Royale and hoped to use that to launch its own Bond series. MGM sued and the matter was settled out of court, with Sony giving up all claims on Bond. (Perhaps this explains why Sony have been so keen on acquiring/retaining the series’ distribution rights in recent decades.) And so we’re left with just one James Bond series, which has mostly gone from strength to strength.

Awards
1 Golden Globes nomination (Supporting Actress (Barbara Carrera))
2 Saturn Award nominations (Fantasy Film, Special Effects)

Verdict

Between this and the state of the official Moore-starring films at the time, it must’ve sucked to be a Bond fan in the early- to mid-’80s. Maybe some thought Connery returning to the role he’d defined would be a boon, but it didn’t turn out that way: in just about every respect, Never Say Never Again plays like a weak imitation of a Bond film… which I suppose is exactly what it is, really.

As an unofficial production, it’s missing a bunch of the identifying features of the Bond films: the gun barrel, the title sequence, the musical stylings, and, most conspicuously, the famous theme. There’s more to Bond than these tropes, of course, and a really good Bond movie can survive without them, but their absence contributes to the feel of this being a low-rent wannabe, when it needs all the help it can get. The stuff it can include isn’t great either. The one-liners and innuendos are particularly bad. The action is rather dated (although the chase between a souped-up Q-bike and the henchwoman’s tacky little ‘80s car is more exciting than the notoriously underpowered car chase in Spectre, which says more about Spectre than Never Say Never Again). Then there’s the sex scene I mentioned above.

One critic retrospectively described the film as “successful only as a portrait of an over-the-hill superhero,” which is true… up to a point. I mean, most of the stuff about Bond being past his best seems designed to explain Connery’s grey hair and lined face — Bond is still irresistible to literally every woman he meets, and has no problem at all doing any of the action stuff. Connery’s performance isn’t bad either, although it didn’t quite feel like Bond to me. I’m not sure why. It’s not that he seems bored or like he’s only going through the motions (a sensation that definitely comes across in some of his original performances as the character), but he no longer seems to have quite the panache you expect from 007.

And yet, for all that, it’s not as irredeemably terrible as I’d remembered. For all the glaring faults, it actually ticks along with a decent level of entertainment value. So is it, in fact, unfairly maligned? It’s nowhere near the best of Bond, but it doesn’t descend into outright silliness like some of the official ones do (well, apart from those smoking shoes), and it even has a couple of pretty good bits. It would definitely be a lesser Bond — if it counted, which it doesn’t — but, as a couple of hours of off-brand Bondian fun, it could actually be a lot worse.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Diamonds Are Forever

You’ve been waiting for him…
Asking for him…
Now he’s here.

Country: UK
Language: English
Runtime: 120 minutes
BBFC: A (cut, 1971) | PG (1987) | 12 (2012)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 14th December 1971 (West Germany)
UK Release: 30th December 1971
Budget: $7.2 million
Worldwide Gross: $116 million

Stars
Sean Connery (Marnie, The Untouchables)
Jill St. John (The Lost World, Sitting Target)
Charles Gray (The Devil Rides Out, The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
Lana Wood (The Searchers, Grayeagle)

Director
Guy Hamilton (Battle of Britain, Evil Under the Sun)

Screenwriters
Richard Maibaum (Ransom!, Licence to Kill)
Tom Mankiewicz (The Sweet Ride, Ladyhawke)

Based on
Diamonds Are Forever, the fourth James Bond novel by Ian Fleming.


The Story
After finally assassinating his nemesis, Blofeld, Bond is assigned to investigate a diamond smuggling operation in Holland, but following the trail leads him to the glitz of Las Vegas — and a familiar foe.

Our Hero
Bond, James Bond, agent 007 of the British secret service. He may be looking a little older than when we last saw him, but he’s still capable of wooing all the ladies and scaling the outside of skyscrapers.

Our Villains
We so much focus on the Dr Nos and Auric Goldfingers of the early Bond films — plus the ever-changing roster of villains he’d face in later movies — that it’s easy to forget Blofeld has a presence in almost every Bond movie before Diamonds Are Forever (indeed, Dr. No (which only mentions SPECTRE) and Goldfinger (which has no ties whatsoever) are the only exceptions), so it’s no real surprise that he’s not just confined to the pre-titles here. It certainly wouldn’t have been to audiences in 1971, either: he’s prominent in the trailer, and Charles Gray is rather highly billed for someone who’s only in the opening minutes. That said, Lana Wood is fourth billed and she only has about three scenes, so… Until he’s properly revealed, however, we have overtly homosexual assassins Mr Wint and Mr Kidd to tide us over. Considering they’re shown as creepy and murderous, it’s hardly an enlightened portrayal of homosexuality; but then it is from 1971, so what do you expect?

Best Supporting Character
Tiffany Case is Bond’s way in to the diamond smuggling operation. She’s a self-assured and capable woman… for about the first half of the film, before she sharply descends into a stereotypical Bond Girl bimbo. Oh well, they tried.

Memorable Quote
“That’s quite a nice little nothing you’re almost wearing. I approve.” — James Bond

Memorable Scene
Bond travels to Amsterdam under the identity of a diamond smuggler they’ve captured, but when he escapes and to Amsterdam too, Bond must intercept the chap before his cover’s blown — which he does in a small lift, leading to a brutal close-quarters brawl that’s almost as good as the famous train carriage one in From Russia with Love.

Write the Theme Tune…
One of the most famous of the Bond title tracks, its music was written by the film’s — and, by this point, the series’ incumbent — composer, John Barry. It was his fifth Bond theme song (seventh if you include Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and We Have All the Time in the World). The lyrics were by Don Black, returning for his second theme after Thunderball.

Sing the Theme Tune…
This is also the second Bond theme for singer Shirley Bassey, after (of course) Goldfinger. Apparently co-producer Harry Saltzman hated the song, objecting to the innuendo in the lyrics, and it was only saved by his fellow producer, Cubby Broccoli. That said, Saltzman may have had a point: in a later interview, Barry revealed that he instructed Bassey to imagine she was singing about… a penis. “They are all I need to please me / They can stimulate and tease me … Hold one up and then caress it / Touch it, stroke it and undress it…” Whew, crikey!

Making of
By this point in the Bond series (this is the seventh film, remember) a lot more original thought was going into which direction to take things than just “adapt a Fleming novel”. For one thing, they were worried Bond’s British style was becoming passé, so they decided to set the movie in glamorous Las Vegas — which, let’s be frank, has dated far, far more than the classier style of the earlier films. Anyway, they went even further than that: with Lazenby having deserted them, a new leading man was required, and so they cast… an American! *gasp* Unthinkable today. The man in question was John Gavin, best known for playing Sam Loomis in Psycho. He’d also played France’s answer to Bond, agent OSS 117, in a film just a couple of years earlier, which is either good training or a weird conflict, depending how you look at it. Not that it mattered anyway, because United Artists insisted they get Sean Connery back, and they did — albeit for a then-extraordinary $1.2 million salary. To Connery’s credit, he gave every cent of it to a Scottish education charity he’d established.

Previously on…
Connery played Bond in five movies between 1962 and 1967, eventually becoming bored of the role and quitting. They replaced him with an unknown Australian model, who promptly got too big for his boots and ran off after just one movie. It just so happens that the films’ storylines lend credence to the theory that James Bond is a codename that goes along with the 007 designation — normally I hate that theory, but the way it explains the events of OHMSS and Diamonds Are Forever is quite neat. (Basically: Connery-Bond retires and is replaced by Lazenby-Bond (hence the “this never happened to the other fella” line), but when Lazenby-Bond’s wife is killed he quits and Connery-Bond comes out of retirement to avenge her for him (hence him tracking down Blofeld at the start of DAF, but not seeming all that emotional about it).)

Next time…
Connery said he’d never play Bond again… which became the inspiration for the title the next time he did. But that really was his last hurrah in the role. As for the official Bond movies, they finally did the inevitable and cast Roger Moore. The rest is history.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound)

Verdict

Well throw me out a window and call me Plenty if Diamonds Are Forever isn’t actually a really enjoyable Bond movie. Okay, it’s probably still the worst (official) Connery movie, thanks to a few daft bits (the elephant playing the slot machine; Blofeld in drag; etc), and because it simply doesn’t have as many standout sequences or memorable lines as his other five. But, on its own merits, it’s good fun. The first 45 minutes or so are played admirably straight and serious; the car chase around Vegas is rather good; and while those bits of silliness do creep in, they’re only fleeting (albeit a precursor to where the whole series would go in the Moore years). I’d previously remembered Diamonds as a real nadir; a blight on the name of the series. Now, while I wouldn’t rank it among my most favourites, I found a lot to like.

(For the sake of comparison, I previously gave five stars to From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and four stars to Dr. No and Thunderball. This would be three-and-a-half, but I’ve never done half stars on this blog. If I did, perhaps one or two of those others would’ve been marked down by half-a-star too.)

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Hunt for Red October

The hunt is on.

Country: USA
Language: English & Russian
Runtime: 135 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 2nd March 1990 (USA)
UK Release: 20th April 1990
Budget: $30 million
Worldwide Gross: $200.5 million

Stars
Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The Rock)
Alec Baldwin (Beetlejuice, The Shadow)
Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff, The Bourne Ultimatum)
Sam Neill (Omen III: The Final Conflict, Jurassic Park)
James Earl Jones (Star Wars, The Lion King)

Director
John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Thomas Crown Affair)

Screenwriters
Larry Ferguson (Highlander, Alien³)
Donald Stewart (Missing, Patriot Games)

Based on
The Hunt for Red October, a novel by Tom Clancy, the first to star Jack Ryan.


The Story
After the USSR launches a new type of submarine with an almost undetectable engine, its veteran captain, Marko Ramius, ignores his orders and heads for the US. As the Russians hunt for him and the Americans try to intercept him, one question is on both sides’ minds: is Ramius intending to defect or start a war?

Our Hero
CIA analyst Jack Ryan is something of an expert on Ramius, and the main voice insisting the Russian intends to defect. With just days to prove his theory, the normally desk-bound Ryan must venture out into the field — the “field” in this case being the stormy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Our Villain
Submarine captain Marko Ramius, a hero in the USSR who trained most of their fleet, has been entrusted with their latest top-secret vessel, the Red October… but what is he intending to do with it? If Ryan’s right, he’s not such a villain after all.

Best Supporting Character
Commander Bart Mancuso is the captain of the US submarine USS Dallas, the first to encounter the Red October and, thanks to its genius sonar technician, the only one able to track it. Scott Glenn’s performance was based on a real sub captain the cast spent time with, Thomas B. Fargo, whose friendly but authoritative manner and relationship with his crew inspired Glenn.

Memorable Quote
“‘Ryan, some things in here don’t react well to bullets.’ Yeah, like me. I don’t react well to bullets.” — Jack Ryan

Memorable Scene
As the Red October navigates an underwater pass only traversable thanks to detailed maps and precise timings, the silent engine fails, forcing them to engage the regular motors — which attracts the attention of the Soviets hunting them. With a torpedo on their trail, Ramius takes the precarious navigation into his own hands…

Technical Wizardry
With much of the action taking place in the cramped confines of various submarines (the Red October, the USS Dallas, and another Soviet sub, the V.K. Konovalov), cinematographer Jan de Bont realised they would need a way for viewers to quickly determine which submarine they were on, especially when cutting between action on multiple vessels. He decide to subtly vary the colour of the lighting on each sub — blue for Red October, red for the Dallas, and green for the Konovalov — so that they would be distinguishable without belabouring the point. It works: while watching the film, it’s never confusing which sub we’re supposed to be on.

Truly Special Effect
Apparently director John McTiernan wanted to realise the underwater action with CGI, until ILM pointed out it was nowhere near that advanced yet. Instead, most of the underwater shots are models — and not shot underwater, but in a smoke-filled warehouse. They look fantastic, with small CG additions (like plankton or the wake of propellers) helping to sell the visuals. On the downside, some of the pre-digital compositing is now really showing its age — Alec Baldwin’s hair is see-through in the final shot!

Next time…
With the film a huge success, naturally more Jack Ryan adaptations followed. Technically the first two, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, are sequels to Red October, but with Alec Baldwin busy the lead role was recast with Harrison Ford, so it feels more like the series starts over. For no apparent reason a fourth film in the series didn’t materialise, and so the series genuinely started over a decade later, with Ben Affleck playing a younger Ryan in The Sum of All Fears. That wasn’t a success, leading them to try again another decade later, with Chris Pine playing an even fresher Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. That wasn’t a success either, which has led them down the path of adapting the character for television, with John Krasinski playing another young Ryan in Amazon’s Jack Ryan.

Awards
1 Oscar (Sound Effects Editing)
2 Oscar nominations (Sound, Editing)
3 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Sean Connery), Production Design, Sound)

Verdict

Everything ages: Tom Clancy’s debut novel was credited with helping start the techno-thriller genre in the ’80s, which I guess made this film adaptation cutting-edge when it followed shortly afterwards. Now, it’s the best part of 30 years old and, even if it’s not exactly looking dated, it certainly doesn’t look current — they don’t make big-budget spy thrillers like this anymore. But maybe they should, because Red October’s qualities stand the test of time: its story is driven by well-drawn, interesting characters (the committed everyman hero; the moral enemy submarine commander; and so on) and an overall sense of suspense (who will find the sub first? And how soon? And what will they do then?), rather than elaborate stunts or computer-generated effects. I like the latter too, but there’s room for variety in the cinematic landscape. Well, at least we’ll always have minor classics like this to watch again and again.

The latest screen iteration of Tom Clancy’s hero can be seen in the TV series Jack Ryan, available to stream on Amazon Prime from today.

The Russia House (1990)

2016 #158
Fred Schepisi | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Russian | 15 / R

The Russia House

Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are on fine form in this romantic spy thriller adapted from a John le Carré novel.

Although it takes a little time to warm up, it soon reveals a typically intricate Le Carré narrative, with everyone playing everyone else as the intelligence agencies try to use Connery’s publisher to extract a Russian defector, with Pfeiffer as the go-between he begins to fall for. It all comes to a head with one of those delightful sequences where you’re not sure who’s conning who and how, and an ending that is, shall we say, pleasingly atypical for Le Carré.

The central performances are superb — I’m not sure Connery, playing against type as a washed-up ageing no-name, has ever been better. There’s a top-notch supporting cast too, including Roy Scheider as a CIA agent, James Fox as Connery’s MI6 handler, plus Michael Kitchen, Klaus Maria Brandauer, David Threlfall, and even Ken Russell. It looks fantastic as well, at least to me, in an unshowy, not over-processed, grainy, very film-y way. Thanks to digital photography, they literally don’t make them like this anymore; heck, thanks to digital grading they haven’t made them like this for about 20 years.

Is that a manuscript in your pocket or are you pleased to see me?

The Russia House is a much overlooked film, even within the small (but, recently, exponentially expanding) canon of Le Carré screen adaptations. However, with its engaging, uncommonly humane espionage story, driven by strong performances, I think it merits a degree of rediscovery.

5 out of 5

The Russia House placed 16th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The Rock (1996)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #75

Alcatraz.
Only one man has ever broken out.
Now five million lives depend on two men breaking in.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 136 minutes
BBFC: 15 (uncut, 1996) | 15 (cut on video, 1996) | 15 (uncut on video, 2002)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 7th June 1996
UK Release: 21st June 1996
First Seen: TV, c.2000

Stars
Nicolas Cage (Raising Arizona, National Treasure)
Sean Connery (You Only Live Twice, The Untouchables)
Ed Harris (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind)

Director
Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Transformers)

Screenwriters
David Weisberg (Payoff, Double Jeopardy)
Douglas S. Cook (Holy Matrimony, Criminal)
Mark Rosner (Blanco, Empire City)

Story by
David Weisberg (Holy Matrimony, Criminal)
Douglas S. Cook (Payoff, Double Jeopardy)

The Story
When a rogue US General and his team of Marines occupy Alcatraz, threatening to launch a gas attack on San Francisco unless their demands are met, a field-inexperienced chemical weapons specialist is paired with the only man to ever escape from the prison to break in and prevent the attack.

Our Heroes
Dr Stanley Goodspeed is a mild-mannered vinyl-loving FBI chemist, as unlikely an action movie leading man as… well, Nicolas Cage once was. His new partner is John Mason, a former SAS Captain who’s been imprisoned without charge by the US for decades. He’s also clearly more skilled than both an entire squad of mutinous Marines and, therefore, the entire team of Navy SEALs who initially fail to stop them. That’s the SAS for you.

Our Villain
Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel, a covert ops commander who is seeking recompense for his men who were killed in action but have gone unacknowledged due to the secretive nature of their missions. Fundamentally a good man, driven to less good methods. A particularly effective villain because he’s relatively sympathetic to the audience. Not all the men on his team are so trustworthy, however…

Memorable Quote
Stanley: “You’ve been around a lot of corpses. Is that normal?”
Mason: “What, the feet thing?”
Stanley: “Yeah, the feet thing.”
Mason: “Yeah, it happens.”
Stanley: “Well I’m having a hard time concentrating. Can you do something about it?”
Mason: “Like what, kill him again?”

Memorable Scene
Flarey goodBelieving the mission lost, the military has launched its back-up plan: an airstrike that will destroy the poison gas but also kill everyone on the island. Naturally our heroes manage to complete their mission nonetheless, and as the jets streak across San Francisco Bay, Stanley attempts to signal abort with two green flares. In slow motion, of course.

Making of
The final screenplay actually has many more authors than credited — not unusual for a Hollywood blockbuster, but the uncredited ones are of considerably higher profile. David Weinberg and Douglas Cook penned the original spec script, but Jonathan Hensleigh worked closely with Michael Bay on the final shooting script. When Writers Guild arbitration awarded the credit elsewhere, Bay wrote an open letter calling the process a “sham” and a “travesty”. Others who worked on the screenplay included Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino, with British screenwriting team Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais brought in at Connery’s behest to rework his dialogue, though they ended up rewriting everyone else’s too.

Previously on…
There’s a theory that Connery’s character is actually an older James Bond, incarcerated under a pseudonym. Obviously that isn’t actually there in the text, but is kind of a fun idea.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound)
1 MTV Movie Award (On-Screen Duo (Sean Connery & Nicolas Cage))
2 MTV Movie Award nominations (Movie, Action Sequence (for the yellow Ferrari’s chase through San Francisco))
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Music)

What the Critics Said
“the movie’s best asset is the old-fashioned, buddy-movie interplay between Cage and Connery — Cage as the frantic, white-collar lab technician who doesn’t like guns, Connery as the weathered, resourceful old pro who’s escaped from three maximum-security prisons and has a one-liner ready for every big, scary guy he kills.” — Gary Thompson, Philadelphia Daily News

Score: 66%

What the Public Say
“The screenplay […] does a sneaky thing on the way to Alcatraz. The two heroes are developed, or at least as much as one can expect for a standard action film. The action is diverted to the streets of San Francisco and a first-rate car chase. After an hour into the running time, the focus switches to the site in the movie’s title. These things are important in that they keep the film from stretching out the time spent on Alcatraz and becoming bloated on unnecessary action scenes. The audience has invested its interest in the heroes and can enjoy the shootouts now that more is on the line.” — Mark Pfeiffer, Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema

Verdict

Michael Bay has become a bit of a joke, thanks to his tendency to let his movies get distracted by explosions, special effects, and young women, while not paying enough attention to the screenplay. However, earlier in his career — and sometimes in later years, too — he’s produced enough quality work to suggest he does know what he’s doing… or maybe he’s just lucked out a couple of times. Either way, this is probably the pinnacle of his oeuvre. While it functions well in Bay’s familiar wheelhouse of adrenaline-pumping action-thriller, it’s elevated by a screenplay that offers dialogue which, at times, can be witty and/or intelligent; and, most importantly, which creates sympathetic characters on both sides of the conflict. There aren’t many actioners where you can say “the writing’s the best bit”, are there?

#76 will be… just a jump to the left…

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #45

The man with the hat is back.
And this time he’s bringing his dad.

Country: USA
Language: English, German & Greek
Runtime: 127 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 24th May 1989 (USA)
UK Release: 30th June 1989
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Harrison Ford (Blade Runner, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
Sean Connery (Dr. No, The Hunt for Red October)
Denholm Elliott (Brimstone & Treacle, A Room with a View)
John Rhys-Davies (The Living Daylights, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)
Alison Doody (A View to a Kill, We Still Kill the Old Way)
Julian Glover (For Your Eyes Only, We Still Steal the Old Way)

Director
Steven Spielberg (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)

Screenwriter
Jeffrey Boam (The Dead Zone, Lethal Weapon 2)

Story by
George Lucas (Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, Strange Magic)
Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple, Max)

“Pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue”, according to Spielberg, but not credited
Tom Stoppard (Empire of the Sun, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead)

The Story
When an old professor goes missing while searching for the Holy Grail, there’s only one man to track him down: his son, Indiana Jones. With his father’s cryptic diary as a guide, Indy embarks on a race against the Nazis to be the first to find the Grail.

Our Heroes
Indiana Jones, the fedora-wearing, whip-wielding, quip-delivering, snake-fearing, Nazi-fighting archeologist adventurer. This time joined by his dad, Henry — who still has it with the ladies, apparently.

Our Villains
A pair of deceptive deceivers: respectable American businessman Walter Donovan sets both Indy and his father in search of the Holy Grail, but he’s secretly working with the Nazis because he wants the prize for his own selfish ends. Then there’s Dr Elsa Schneider, who seduces both Joneses (bit creepy) and is also secretly working with the Nazis. But might she come good in the end…?

Best Supporting Character
Indy’s dad, Henry Sr, is along for the ride this time. Sean Connery was always Spielberg’s first choice for the role, as an inside joke that Indy’s father is James Bond. (Not literally, obviously.) The father-son sparring is one of the highlights of the film.

Memorable Quote
Prof. Henry Jones: “I’ve got to tell you something.”
Indiana Jones: “Don’t get sentimental now, dad. Save it ’til we get out of here.”
Prof. Henry Jones: “The floor’s on fire, see? And the chair.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #1
“He chose… poorly.” — Grail Knight

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #2
“Nazis. I hate these guys.” — Indiana Jones

Memorable Scene
Any time you get Ford and Connery playing off each other is fantastic, but the scene where they’re tied back-to-back to be interrogated by the Nazis, then have to escape the burning fortress (see: memorable quote) is one of the best and (importantly, for this category) most memorable.

Technical Wizardry
In previous films, computer-generated effects elements had been printed onto film and composited into final shots the old fashioned way, using optical printers. For Donovan’s death scene in Last Crusade, several states of the character’s decay were created with make-up and puppets, filmed, then ILM scanned the footage and morphed the takes together digitally. This was the first time film had been scanned, digitally manipulated, and then output back to film as a finished shot.

Truly Special Effect
The “leap of faith” trial — a bridge rendered ‘invisible’ with the help of false perspective — doesn’t make a great deal of sense if you stop and think about it, but is a very effective special effect nonetheless. It’s actually a model bridge in front of a painted background (because it was cheaper than building a full-size set), with Harrison Ford shot on bluescreen and composited in. (More details on how it was done can be found in this article about the film’s post-production.)

Letting the Side Down
Conversely, some of the other special effects have aged pretty badly — see-through planes and that kind of thing. On the bright side, Lucas never tried to Special Edition it.

Making of
According to Robert Watts, who was a producer on the first three Indys, “The Last Crusade was the toughest Indiana Jones picture to do because of its scope. First of all, we had virtually every form of transportation people used during that period, planes, trains, boats, cars, horses, zeppelins, bicycles, motorbikes with sidecars, everything except skis. Also, we shot the movie in Spain, London, Venice, Jordan, Austria, Germany, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, California and, finally, Texas. So it was quite a world tour.”

Previously on…
Indiana Jones made his debut in Best Picture nominee Raiders of the Lost Ark. He returned in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which used to be regarded as The Bad One (despite having its fans), until 2008…

Next time…
Some people would be very keen to tell you that Last Crusade is the last Indiana Jones movie, but, of course, they’re wrong: 19 years later, everyone returned for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which certainly isn’t the best Indy movie but quite probably isn’t as bad as you remember. They’ll be doing the same again in a couple of years for a fifth adventure. There are further adventures of Indy in the three-season TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (I don’t know what the consensus on it is, but I used to love it). In print, Indy is the star of 13 adult novels, plus eight German novels that have never been translated into English, 11 “choose your own adventure”-style books, 33 Young Indiana Jones novels, and numerous comic books. There have been eight computer games based on the films, two Lego Indiana Jones games, and nine games with original storylines, at least one of which, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, is a classic (which I’ve just discovered is available on Steam. It might be re-play time…)

Awards
1 Oscar (Sound Effects Editing)
2 Oscar nominations (Score, Sound)
3 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (Sean Connery), Sound, Special Effects)
4 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Actor (Harrison Ford), Writing, Costumes)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Take a good look at this movie. In fact, go back four or five times and take four or five good looks. In this imperfect world, you’re not likely to see many manmade objects come this close to perfection. Director Steven Spielberg has taken all the best elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark (with little of the mystical mumbo jumbo) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (without the gratuitous violence and child abuse) and combined them into an adventure film that is fast, muscular, playful, warmhearted and sheer pleasure.” — Ralph Novak, People

Score: 88%

What the Public Say
Raiders is lots of fun but it didn’t have the depth of characterization that The Last Crusade brings to Indy (in my opinion) and Steven Spielberg himself said that he enjoyed having the opportunity to do a real character study in the third movie. […] it’s just amazing to see [Sean Connery] and Harrison Ford play off one another. I love the subtle softening of their relationship […] There’s a depth to their father-son relationship that goes beyond mere banter and friendly insults” — Eva, Coffee, Classics, & Craziness

Verdict

I know we’re all supposed to love Raiders most, but I think Last Crusade is actually my favourite Indy movie. After the darkness of Temple of Doom, and the resultant criticism, Spielberg and co set out to make a lighter adventure more in the vein of Raiders. It’s possibly the funniest Indy movie because of that, but without tipping over into all-out comedy, thanks to plenty of the requisite derring-do, an almost Bondian globetrotting storyline, and a high-stakes climax, complete with gruesome death for the villain. Spielberg once said it was his favourite Indy movie too, so I’m in good company.

#46 will be… the first of two films whose title begins with “J”, only one of which is directed by Steven Spielberg…

Highlander (1986)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #43

There can be only one.

Country: UK
Language: English
Runtime: 116 minutes | 111 minutes (US theatrical cut)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 7th March 1986 (USA)
UK Release: 29th August 1986
First Seen: TV, 6th October 2000 (probably)

Stars
Christopher Lambert (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Mortal Kombat)
Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The Rock)
Roxanne Hart (The Verdict, Pulse)
Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie)

Director
Russell Mulcahy (The Shadow, Resident Evil: Extinction)

Screenwriters
Peter Bellwood (St. Helens, Highlander II: The Quickening)
Larry Ferguson (Beverly Hills Cop II, The Hunt for Red October)
Gregory Widen (Backdraft, The Prophecy)

Story by
Gregory Widen (see above)

The Story
Connor MacLeod is an immortal, a race of men living in secret among the rest of us, who must one day come together for the Gathering, after which there can be only one immortal left standing. That time comes in New York, 1985, as hulking savage the Kurgan hunts down the remaining immortals so that he can be the only one, and use the power that imbues to dominate the world. MacLeod is the only man in his way. Who will win? After all, there can be only— yeah, okay, you get it.

Our Hero
There can be only one Connor MacLeod, the 16th Century Scotsman with a suspiciously European accent who can live forever (who wants to live forever, anyway?)… unless someone lops his head off. That tends to do for most people, to be fair.

Our Villain
The strong and silent type, the Kurgan is certainly a physically imposing menace. Also immortal except for the decapitation thing. Wants MacLeod’s head, literally.

Best Supporting Character
Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez — the perpetually Scottish-accented Sean Connery as an Egyptian from Spain. It’s that kind of movie.

Memorable Quote
Connor MacLeod: “I’ve been alive for four and a half centuries, and I cannot die.”
Brenda: “Well, everyone has got their problems.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“There can be only one!” — everyone

Memorable Scene
(Spoilers!) As Connor talks with his assistant Rachel, an old woman, the film flashes back to World War 2: fleeing from Nazi soldiers, Connor runs into a barn, where he discovers a little girl hiding — Rachel. When a German officer turns up, Connor takes a bullet for her… then gets up and kills the officer, of course. This scene wasn’t even in the truncated US theatrical cut (it’s the largest single deletion, as detailed here), but has always stuck in my mind. It’s one of the best executions of the concept of the immortal: his only friend, an old woman, is someone he rescued as a little girl. (Short-lived half-decent US procedural crime series Forever explored this same concept more thoroughly over its single season a couple of years ago.)

Memorable Song
Who Wants to Live Forever is one of Queen’s best songs — and it was written by Brian May on the cab ride home after watching some rough footage from the movie! The band had only intended to record one song for the film, but after enjoying that footage they were inspired to compose more. The exact number of tracks they produced varies depending which source you listen to — they’re all on the A Kind of Magic album, but not all the tracks on that album were for Highlander. The exception is their recording of New York, New York for the film, which has never been released.

Technical Wizardry
Before CGI, filmmakers had to find other ways to do things like make swords spark when they clash. Animation was one method, of course. Not in Highlander, though. No, they attached a wire to each sword that then went down the arms of the actors to a car battery. One wire was connected to the positive terminal, the other to the negative terminal, so that when the blades touched there was an arc of electricity. Sounds super safe. Imagine the insurance costs of possibly electrocuting two lead actors…

Letting the Side Down
You might say the accents, but I think they’re part of the charm.

Making of
The opening scene was scripted to take place during a hockey match, emphasising the violence of the sport in contrast to the flashbacks of Connor warring in Scotland. The NHL weren’t impressed and refused permission. It was replaced with a wrestling match, which is presumably less violent than hockey.

Next time…
There should be only one! No one pays much attention to anything Highlander-related beyond the first film anymore, it feels like, but there’s a whopping great franchise lurking underneath that surface. It begins with much-maligned sequel Highlander II: The Quickening, also directed by Mulcahy and starring Lambert and Connery, which is set in the future and explains away the immortals as being aliens, or something. In spite of the minor improvement in the form of a “Renegade Version” director’s cut, the rest of the franchise ignores it. Spin-off TV series Highlander: The Series began in 1992, following the adventures of Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), another immortal from the same clan. It ran for six seasons, begetting a spin-off of its own, Highlander: The Raven, which only lasted one. An animated series set in a post-apocalyptic future began in 1994, titled Highlander: The Animated Series (imaginative with their names, weren’t they?), which followed “the last of the MacLeods”, Quentin. It lasted for 40 episodes across two seasons. Also in 1994, second sequel Highlander III: The Sorcerer (aka Highlander: The Final Dimension) returned to the story of Connor MacLeod, ignoring both The Quickening and the TV series. Apparently it’s just a rehash of the first movie. After the TV series ended, fourth film Highlander: Endgame attempted to merge the two branches of the franchise, with a movie that followed Duncan MacLeod and led him to encounter Connor. It’s been shown on the BBC with surprising regularity. For some reason they made an anime movie in 2007, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance, which pits Colin MacLeod (yes, another one) against an immortal Roman general in a post-apocalyptic future. What is it with animation and post-apocalyptic futures? The whole shebang ultimately ground to a halt with Highlander: The Source, a post-Endgame continuation that was supposed to be the first of a trilogy but didn’t go down very well (plus ça change). It’s also been shown on the BBC with surprising regularity. There are also novels, a Flash-animated webseries, a handful of comic books released in the mid-’00s, and a couple of series of audio dramas from Big Finish that continue the TV series. A remake/reboot has been in development since 2008.

What the Critics Said
“Film starts out with a fantastic sword-fighting scene in the garage of Madison Square Garden and then jumps to a medieval battle between the clans set in 16th-century Scotland. Adding to the confusion in time, director Russell Mulcahy can’t seem to decide from one scene to the next whether he’s making a sci-fi, thriller, horror, music video or romance – end result is a mishmash.” — Variety (they say that as if it’s a bad thing!)

Score: 68%

What the Public Say
“I hear this won the Oscar for Best Movie Ever Made.” — Jope @ Blu-ray.com

Verdict

Highlander is a cult favourite — many reviews will tell you as much. I guess I’m in that cult, then, because I bloody love it. Of course it’s preposterous, of course the screenplay and performances are ridiculous, and of course it’s directed as much like an ’80s music video as it is a film… but it’s also a fantastic fantasy concept, so rich for further exploration that they keep trying to do just that (even though they keep messing it up). Also, it’s about men who have sword fights — excitingly choreographed sword fights — so, yeah, it’s right up my alley in that, too. Highlander may not be a “great film” in the artistic history-of-the-medium sense, but my goodness is it a great film.

A 30th anniversary restoration of Highlander is released on DVD and Blu-ray next month.

#44 will be… the best Fantastic Four movie.